I scribbled this out last year, just before Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out, when Ubisoft was taking flak for failing to include playable female characters in the co-op because it was too hard and expensive to animate them. Made one of my sisters chuckle, flew right over the head of my brother. He’s 14, god bless him, and just doesn’t quite yet have the best grasp of sarcasm and irony. He’ll get there though. Anyway. Fortunately for Ubisoft, the controversy (in my experience at least) died down a fair bit once the game itself was released. Unfortunately for Ubisoft that was because Unity turned out to be glitchy nightmare fuel (which sidelined women in plenty of other ways). Apparently animating male characters is hard and expensive too.
But it’s a new year, a new Assassin’s Creed has been announced and low and behold Syndicate (set in Victorian era London, at the height and centre of the Industrial Revolution) will star not just a mutton-chop and top-hat sporting male playable protagonist, but a female playable protagonist as well! We’ll be playing as twin sibling assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they battle to free London from the oppressive yoke of Templar rule by murdering them and their mates. Good stuff. They’re saying we’ll be able to play through most of the game as either character, aside from a few specific missions for each where they get their own character development. Great stuff. And hell, by the looks of it the gangs of London that will make up both the player’s and the antagonist’s armies of underworld gangs will be equal opportunity employers, meaning we’ll have contextually appropriate female opposition to stab. Fantastic stuff. Wait… yes, that’s still good. People are rightfully excited. Yet, after checking out the first few trailers, pictures and gameplay video I can’t help but think, “So, where the flying fuck is she?”
Seriously, look at the announcement trailer:
You hear Jacob talking, see Jacob standing in front of a growing army of street thugs, see Jacob leaping about and stabbing people. No noticeable Evie.
Then there’s the first cinematic trailer:
Again, Jacob talking, standing, leading, leaping and stabbing, along with him flying up walls with some sort of grappling hook launcher/retractor… which is actually pretty damn cool. Still. No noticeable Evie.
But wait, there’s the pre-alpha gameplay footage that’s just come out!
And there’s Evie! In the cut scenes! She does bloody exist! Of course, we only get to see her in those cut scenes and at no other time during the entire walkthrough. And even then Jacob takes the centre stage as the driving force of this particular (I suppose you’d call it a) plot point, with all the exciting lines and sense of humour, while Evie is calm and politely apologetic.
Ubisoft have since released a trailer introducing us to Jacob Frye, but seem to think another introducing us to the brand new collectibles is far more important than a trailer introducing us to one of the main playable characters. Shit, even the box art has got Evie crammed to the side while Jacob takes front and centre.
Now, I know it’s early days. I know that at any point the marketing team might flood us with information and images of Evie being the arse-kicking heroine that (I bloody well hope) we all expect her to be. I know that the creators are actually pretty decent at writing diverse and nuanced characters and they have far from the worst reputation when it comes to writing women. I know that they might simply be underplaying their first playable female in a main Assassin’s Creed title, not making a big deal out being able to play as a chick because it really fucking shouldn’t be. I know that the apparent sidelining of Evie in this first round of promotional material may have more to do with the marketing team still being terrified that boys think playing as a girl is ickie than with the game or developer following the same train of thought (I know that this disconnection between marketing teams and developers is still a major problem in Triple A gaming). I know, I know, I know. If you call me anything you call me fair-minded. The problem is that I do not have a reason to trust Ubisoft.
I can’t help but feel that a big part of the reason Evie will be a playable character is Ubisoft reacting to all the flak it took last year. And there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the great things about the video games industry is the way the interaction between player and developer, consumer and creator. It also goes without saying that including a playable female character is a big progressive step forward. But if they end up largely side-lining or stereotyping the character (in the game or the promotional material) than it won’t be nearly big enough, especially since it’s already been shown that including playable female characters in the story and marketing won’t hurt game sales.
Look at Bioware and the advertising for Mass Effect 3, where it reacted to the fans demanding that FemShep be featured in the art and marketing by allowing them to select a default look and then putting her in trailers and artwork, something that the developer carried over to the advertising of Dragon Age: Inquisition, where the narration of trailers was voiced by the actors playing both the male and female Inquisitors, and the main box art featured an ambiguously armoured figure. When Blizzard received complaints that it was using the same (stereotypical) body-shapes for its female characters in upcoming title Overwatch it responded with the (absolutely badass) Zarya. Both companies received a lot of goodwill from their fans for their responses, so there’s no reason for Ubisoft not to follow suit. But I’d argue that both Bioware and Blizzard (even when owned by EA and Activision) have a far better history of positive female representation in their games (not perfect, but definitely better) than Ubisoft’s development studios and the publisher itself do. Shit, when I googled “list of Ubisoft female protagonists” all I got was a bunch of articles about the controversy I mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog, about Ubisoft’s lack of female protagonists.
So when I don’t see the lady in question featuring prominently – or at all – in the first round of announcements and hype beyond “you’ll get to play as her, we swear!” I just can’t bring myself to take their word for it.
Now, I’m probably just being facetious. Evie will probably be a great character with a great story and great development. And god knows I probably won’t have access to a console or PC capable of playing it come Syndicate‘s release. I’ll also mention that the only two Assassin’s Creed games I’ve enjoyed enough to play to the end were Brotherhood and Black Flag, so my opinion probably doesn’t matter all that much.
But still. Ubisoft need to be held accountable. It’s not enough to be able to play as a chick, she needs to be treated with the respect and power that the male characters of your games receive. At the very least, she needs to be given her own trailer before one announcing the fucking pre-order bonuses.